WE HAVE NEVER MET
I am a quintessential ’80s kid. At family functions in Brisbane, I sit with my siblings, all of us in our forties, searching YouTube for the intro themes to our favourite kids shows: Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Roger Ramjet, Bananaman, Mighty Mouse, Chocky and The Banana Splits. And besides the US and British influence, we search for the iconic Australian TV programs of our youth: The Nargun and the Stars, The Henderson Kids and Secret Valley. Of course, for any kid of the ’80s, there was also John Farnham. If Whispering Jack was the soundtrack to our youth, the soundtrack to the first referendum campaign in the era of social media, dominated by Trumpian misinformation, must be Farnham’s Age of Reason.
The most common question from Aussies since the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart was read out to the Australian people – after, What question is on the ballot paper? – is: Why don’t you ask Johnny Farnham if he will let you use his song for the campaign? or, Have you thought of Farnham’s “You’re the Voice”?
Written after an anti-nuclear protest in Hyde Park, it is a song for the ages. A song that Farnham himself has said is an anthem for all Australians. The song has us looking at one another down a gun-barrel. But it also urges us to turn the page over. In Grade 6, I choreographed a dance to it in the back room of Mum’s housing commission home in Eagleby with my mate Clare Rapkins. For me, the song spoke of action, momentum, agency and the power of voice, but more importantly about finding ways to move forward even when there’s disagreement and tension, not letting the past be a burden on the future. And here we are in 2023, staring down the barrel of a gun. I use that phrase metaphorically.
The polling for the Voice to Parliament over the six years since the Uluṟu Statement tells us there is a fair chance of winning a referendum vote. We have solid support. Unlike at the failed republic referendum of 1999, when the majority population in every major city was Australian-born, in 2023 our capital cities are filled with the overseas-born or those with migrant parents. The demographics have changed, the politics have changed. Attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have changed too. Aboriginal culture is more present and more visible. Year after year, more young Australians learn about Aboriginal culture in kindergarten, primary school and high school.
Even so, Noel Pearson described Aboriginal people in his 2022 Boyer Lectures as the “most unloved people” in Australia. This caused some angst among the pundits. The Apology to the Stolen Generations, the Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs), the ubiquitous Acknowledgements of Country and the national anthem sung in Language: were these not the gestures of a loving nation? Surely this epithet, “the most unloved,” was better applied to the protection era or the invective of the post-Mabo time?
Pearson’s theory will be tested in 2023, as we enter the final stretch leading to the referendum. The 2023 poll is the culmination of a twelve-year project that commenced with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians. Since 2011, we have had seven public processes, including two parliamentary committees and a referendum council, and ten public reports on the one topic: constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That is a lot of public policy work in plain view.
The form of recognition proposed is a constitutionally enshrined Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to the Parliament. This proposal evolved from twelve deliberative dialogues conducted across Australia and involving a robust sample of First Nations communities (remember that First Nations are collectives, not individuals). The results of the deliberation were not handed to the prime minister in a ritual ceremony, as is customary, but rather issued to the Australian people as an “invitation.” The Uluṟu Statement from the Heart appealed to Australians to “walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.”
At first glance, this seems more a Pollyanna sentiment than hard-edged law reform, but the delegates who attended the regional dialogues and then the national convention at Uluṟu believed a different strategy was required than the ritual issuing of petitions to governments or parliaments that rarely implement them. It was agreed that politicians have too much self-interest and this pledge needed to engage Australians on a higher level than political cynicism. The heart and the head. People, not politicians.
In the dialogues, people recalled the many petitions made over the decades to political leaders, only for them to be dismissed as soon as the government jet’s wheels lifted from the tarmac. They recalled those seminal statements and earlier petitions preserved behind glass and wheeled out for NAIDOC Week or National Reconciliation Week by the Australian parliament. Like the Aboriginal flag, they all inevitably become the property – or enter the custody – of the Commonwealth.
During the closing ceremony of the National Constitutional Convention in 2017, we were adamant that the “gifts” – the Piti, Tjutinypa and Tjara – handed to us by Pitjantjatjara elder Sammy Wilson, a traditional owner of Uluṟu, on behalf of the Mutitjulu community, would not fall prey to the national ritual of fawning over tangible objects while eschewing the substantive ask. This is why the Uluṟu painting from the national convention was taken out of circulation five years ago. The Piti (bowl), Sammy Wilson explained, was to carry the message across Australia. Of the Tjutinypa (club and chisel), he said, “That’s the weapon you use to keep talking with the politicians.” The Tjara (shield), he said, was “to defend the Uluru Statement and to keep the message straight.”
When I flew to Canberra following the Uluṟu Statement in May 2017, along with Noel Pearson, Pat Anderson and Sally Scales, for an ABC TV broadcast of Q&A from Parliament House, we entered the Great Hall to take our seats on the set. Inauspiciously, beside the doorway was a box displaying the Barunga Statement. Would this also be the fate of the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart? To become one in a long line of serious and substantive proposals for structural change refashioned into an historical artefact by the Frozen Continent?
Changing the constitution is a mammoth task. During the regional dialogues, I would recite the record with some trepidation: only eight out of forty-four referendums have been successful since 1901. The old people would chortle knowingly, for they remembered the 1967 referendum, when Australians voted “Yes” to the federal power to make laws for Aboriginal people. They had either been active in the campaign themselves or watched their parents campaign. They were not deterred by the record. They would proudly declare they had received the highest “Yes” vote in the history of Australian referendums. They were earnest in their faith in the fundamental decency of the Australian people. The 2023 referendum campaign will determine whether that faith is misplaced or not.
The story so far seems to suggest that Pearson’s theory of the “most unloved people” belongs to an Old Australia. This Ghost of Australia Past is sustained by a cashed-up “No” campaign, reliant on the economic and social might of the conservative silent generation and baby boomers, with in-kind support from some media. Conservatives are busy carving out a convenient narrative for themselves that there is a reasoned and respectable case for “No”; there isn’t. As journalist Niki Savva wrote recently, “While it is not true to say that every Australian who votes No in the Voice referendum is a racist, you can bet your bottom dollar that every racist will vote No.” The cumulative wealth and power of the rusted-on “No” voters, their prominence in media ownership and on corporate boards, their conservatism and their unwillingness to commit to social change should be juxtaposed with the ascendant, vibrant, new Australia, one that believes in social change and inclusion.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY